“Llyrìa” is the third ECM album from Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, following on and also departing from directions established with “Stoa” (2005) and “Holon” (2008). When “Holon” was issued, composer-pianist Bärtsch likened the linked-mind interplay inside his unique group to a school of fish moving across a coral reef with lightning speed, and the title of his new album is another marine metaphor. The llyrìa is a recently-discovered luminescent denizen of the deep, a creature so odd that biologists are unsure how to classify it. But deep down in the abyss, where the pressure is immense, it floats nimbly, with a cool poetic grace. Bärtsch enjoys the image: a near-neighbour on this planet about whom we know so little. Compositions can evolve strangely, too, he points out. With this in mind Ronin keeps casting its nets in the same ocean, finding forms that defy expectations immediately or manifest their mutations slowly.
The new music of Ronin conveys a feeling of freedom in, not least through the periodic loosening of its ritualistic grooves. The word “Llyrìa” seems also to suggest ‘lyricism’ and composed transitions in almost all the pieces prise open fresh melodic possibilities. There is more room to move inside Nik Bärtsch’s compositions now, more room to breathe. In the early moments of this recording, on “Modul 48” and elsewhere, reedman Sha can be heard taking advantage of this new space.
Although the rhythmical and formal experiments with motoric pulses continue in Ronin, the feel is decidedly more “informal”. Bärtsch speaks of the gravitational pull of his "Themengeflechte" (theme-webs): “Our aesthetic tries not to use obvious melodies as 'themes' in the obvious registrations but to pull energy flow out of rhythmical balances and several 'themes' that can seduce the ear. This time it’s not so much about pulsating sound-patterns as it is about melodic development, with small melodies that establish their own fugato energies”.
Diverse modus operandi are at play in these numbered pieces, from the softly songlike “Modul “48”, which plays unobtrusively with multiple metres to the propulsive “Modul 52” which keeps on moving and doesn’t look back (“like meditation, perhaps, or sports, it lifts the energy to another level.”) Bärtsch describes the Zen-empty “Modul 53”, with its bare bones piano and simple shaker accompaniment as perhaps the album’s most ambitious piece. Modul 55 packs the themes back-to-back (“Which is the main theme? Which theme supports the pattern flow, which the melody flow, which the rhythmical flow?”) “Modul 49_44” which closes the album, picks up where “Modul 44”on “Holon” left off. “I tried to have more lines, more voices, more polyphonic development while at the same time keeping the piece transparent and its structure self-evident”.
In the liner notes, Bärtsch says, “As the band’s composer, I precisely set down most of the pieces in notation, but in performance it becomes at some point impossible to tell what is composed, interpreted or improvised. The band has to discover the right tension and the suitable dramatic structure for a piece on the spur of the moment. The band-organism thus outwits not only the composition, but itself. “
One of the most striking attributes of the new record is the assurance with which Ronin has outdistanced its influences. Minimalism is but a distant reference now while aspects of ‘funk’ are adopted or set aside as the flow of things dictates. “We don’t have to talk about Steve Reich and James Brown anymore,” Bärtsch says. “Listening to them was part of a process that brought us to a more developed understanding of our own phraseology.”
In terms of individual phraseology, the leaping electric bass of Björn Meyer stands out as a Ronin ‘signature sound’. Bärtsch also singles out the contributions of Kaspar Rast in the present recording, and suggests that the loving attention to detail in the shaping of the beat on “Llyrìa” makers this more of a “drum record” than its predecessors. Rast and Bärtsch have been on the same musical wavelength for a long time now: “The interplay between Kaspar and me has already been going on for more than 25 years. It has influenced our inner ears no less than our view of communication per se.”
The group’s adaptability and growth are by-products of discipline and engagement. The Swiss band has toured widely since the release of its widely-praised ECM debut “Stoa”, but also maintained a Monday night workshop-and-concert residency in a Zürich club for the last six years. This autumn Ronin clocks up its 300th hometown performance, nominating this event, at the Exil club on October 4, as the official CD release concert for “Llyrìa”. Touring continues with concerts in France, Germany, Austria and Japan, followed by dates in the Netherlands in early 2011.
“Llyrìa” was recorded in the South of France in March 2010, with Manfred Eicher producing. The album is issued in both CD and 180-gram audiophile versions. Music scores of all the compositions on “Llyrìa” can be obtained from www.nikbaertsch.com.